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June 27, 2004

CBS MAY BE IN TROUBLE WITH THE FCC for its Amazon Associates linkage with Clinton's book:

CBS is part of the Associates Program of Amazon.com. Every sale of Clinton's book -- or of any other product listed by Amazon -- will generate a commission of up to 10 percent of the total sale for CBS, according to Kristin Mariani, a spokeswoman for Amazon.com. . . .

That conflict of interest calls into question the objectivity of CBS. When it makes programming decisions about whom it interviews and how much publicity it generates for the events, without disclosing its vested interest in the book sales, it becomes ethics-challenged.

The FCC has rules about disclosure of business arrangements or other conflicts of interest.

"If there is a problem, it could be regarding the lack of sponsorship identification and payola," according to an FCC source.

"If anyone complains, we will take a look at it," said Ken Scheibel, an attorney in the FCC enforcement bureau.

"Payola" and "plugola" roughly translate into a broadcaster receiving something of value in exchange for playing a song or plugging a product, but not disclosing that information to the audience.

It's not the Amazon linkage that's the issue per se, but the tie to what's broadcast. (Via RatherBiased.com). Arguably, of course, it is disclosed at the point that matters, on the website -- if you look at the links, the Amazon referrer code is pretty obvious to anyone who knows anything. But I don't think the FCC would buy that, as they'd probably feel the relevant disclosure is in the broadcast, not on the website.

UPDATE: Jeff Jarvis says that this is a bogus issue. As a matter of substantive ethics, he's no doubt right. But surely he's not arguing that the FCC deals in matters of substance? They've got rules about this stuff; they're not in the business of ethical analysis. And while RatherBiased.com's campaign on the subject has an element of "gotcha" to it, Sixty Minutes would hardly seem to be in a position to complain about that. . . .

ANOTHER UPDATE: In an update to the post linked above, Jeff is now razzing the columnist quoted above because there's a Google Ad for Clinton's book on the same page as the column. But I think that misses the point. Any idiot can tell that the Google Ads are ads. The FCC rules are about running ads that aren't disclosed as ads -- payola and plugola, as mentioned above. The audience is supposed to know when the broadcaster is getting paid to hype a product. Nobody's suggesting that advertising is illegal or wrong, or that "commerce" is evil. I don't think that RatherBiased.com is even suggesting that Amazon referral fees are wrong, and certainly I'm not. But CBS ran what was, essentially, a commercial for Clinton's book, and CBS didn't disclose that it was making money from the book's sale. I think it's de minimis, under the circumstances, but it's wholly different from what Jeff's talking about.

YET ANOTHER UPDATE: Q&0 says there's no story here, and actually explains why. Seems persuasive to me.

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